Cashing in on the Convention

Posted March 14, 2008 at 6:23pm

Everybody loves to bash lobbyists and corporate high-rollers. But just like the politicians who blast “special interests” on the campaign trail and then turn to them for cash, people far outside the Beltway, in Denver and the Twin Cities, are hoping to pry off a piece of K Street’s largess for themselves.

Homeowners in the two political convention host cities have turned into entrepreneurs, offering up their mansions, luxury condos and ordinary houses to the Beltway set. They have posted their personal sanctuaries on Craigslist, launched Web sites to lure would-be renters and signed up with companies that will find them convention tenants.

“People are getting $12,000-plus,” said John Papelian, a service manager at a Volvo dealership in Denver, who has placed his downtown home on the convention-week market for $15,000. He still has to sell his significant other, Tina, on the idea of having lobbyists or executives take over their place two miles from the convention site. “Maybe over a bottle of wine,” he said.

Some residents in Colorado and Minnesota are hoping not only to make some extra money but also to escape the thousands of politicians, reporters and lobbyists expected to descend on their habitats’ typical late- summer peace.

“We’re not much for when the city gets taken over,” said Minnesota native Amy Caron, wincing at the thought of election-crazed Republicans running her town Sept. 1-4. “It’ll be bananas.”

Residents of the Land of 10,000 Lakes are passionate about the summer — a treasured time for the notoriously chilly state — and some view the Republican National Convention as a way to both get out of town and salvage their Labor Day weekend.

Caron and her husband, Lucas Cragg, have listed their “gorgeous Victorian home,” with four bedrooms and two offices, for a nightly $1,000 rate on free classified ad Web site Craigslist, just one of more than 250 private homes available on the site.

These range from a modest 1,250-square-foot loft charging $1,000 for the week to a sprawling five-bedroom lake house promising “breathtaking views” and backyard access to a jet ski, a 25-foot boat and a personal chef, for $25,000.

Though citizens like Caron hope to make a small profit off their homes during the convention, Republican organizers also have reserved 16,000 rooms at more than 100 area hotels for the week, convention spokesman Matt Burns said.

“We have everything we need in place. If someone would like to rent out their private home, more power to them,” Burns said.

Natalie Wyeth, press secretary for the Democratic convention, said Denver, where there are 200 private residences on Craigslist, also has plenty of hotels for the delegates, reporters and elected officials and party members. “We’re incredibly pleased with the setup and accommodations thus far,” Wyeth said. “The hotel community has been extremely warm and generous.”

The Democratic National Committee has reserved about 17,000 rooms, but most lobbyists and association and corporate executives are on their own.

Just ask Andy Rosenberg, a Democratic lobbyist who plans to spend a week in Denver for his party’s quadrennial event.

He had no luck finding a room near the Pepsi Center, where delegates will gather to nominate their choice for the White House. So Rosenberg went on Craigslist and found a condo in the trendy lower downtown, or LoDo, neighborhood, blocks from the Pepsi Center, for $2,700 for the week.

Both he and his temporary landlord, Rosenberg said, felt jittery about the deal. “We had a long conversation,” Rosenberg said. “He’s taking a leap of faith, so I gave him my Web site and bio. I’m nervous too. I sent him a check for half.”

The chief lobbyist for a financial services trade association said he has booked 10 rooms in Denver for his staff, including a private residence in LoDo for $2,500 for the week, which he found through an executive lodging Web site.

“Through PayPal, you just give them a deposit,” this lobbyist said. “There are enough hotels out there, but you have to expand your geography to the airport or to Boulder. I thought, ‘Do I want to be spending the whole week on a shuttle bus?’ No.”

Patrick Murphy, a Democratic lobbyist with mCapital, said his team still is weighing its housing options in Denver, including renting private homes. “The prices we have seen have been unbelievable,” he said, adding that he is encouraging clients to buy into packages through the DNC or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — some of which include housing.

MCapital and GOP fundraising firm Bellwether Group have partnered with Take’08 Events Unlimited, a local Twin Cities business focused on helping companies and trade associations find high-end lodging, including private residences, and transportation.

Take’08’s Ryan Kelly, a local Minnesotan, said several owners of old Victorian mansions along St. Paul’s Summit Avenue have signed up to rent out their places through his company. “There’s a big difference between us and Craigslist,” he said.

“We’ve got these wonderful mansions that a lot of our clients are looking at as almost mini-hotels,” Kelly said. Rates for the mansions vary from $15,000 to $50,000 for the week. While the Twin Cities offer plenty of hotel rooms, Kelly said, the number of luxury accommodations is limited. Take’08 is planning a preview seminar on April 2 at mCapital’s Washington office.

“We’ve had dozens and dozens of calls,” Kelly said. “Everybody recognizes what a big deal this is. … I’ve got a lot of homeowners who really want to be part of rolling out the red carpet. It’s more than just about money.”

But it’s mostly about money.

St. Paul’s Stuart Paster said he did not hesitate to put his house on the market for the convention, a move his neighbors called “genius.” All the more genius because, according to tax lobbyist Ken Kies of the Federal Policy Group, homeowners who rent out their pads for less than two weeks per year don’t have to pay taxes on the money they collect.

“I decided to do this six months ago when I knew that the convention was going to be here,” said Paster, who at a $15,000-a-week price point is going after an executive clientele who may want to use his home for entertaining. His Craigslist posting reads like an entry in a traveler’s magazine for weekend vacationers rather than delegate-counting convention-goers.

“This feature packed 4,500 square foot home is beautifully decorated and updated to include all of today’s modern amenities,” the ad reads. “It has a luxury Master Suite with a private 2nd floor deck overlooking the pool.”

He also is throwing in access to housekeeping and catering services, grocery delivery, child care and 24-hour on-call concierge.

Ditto for Desiree Gellman, who owns a Denver boutique called Polkadot. She hopes to get $10,000 for her home, a five- to eight-minute drive from the convention site, and is also willing to include taxi services (provided by a neighbor) and catering to attract lobbyists and executives.

“I figure it would be a good place for them to host a cocktail party or host a brunch,” she said of her three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath home.

But she plans to take few chances.

“I would definitely treat it as a hotel would and take a deposit and then get a credit card just in case,” she explained. “I’m going to see if I can look up some kind of general background checks.”

Terry Heaton — a registered nurse in Denver who wants $980 a night for her two- bedroom Victorian home and another $430 a night for a guesthouse on her property — plans to take a lower-tech approach to keeping renters in line.

“I would meet them when they came here,” she said. “And I would take things that I really care about getting broken and box them up and put them in the garage. But I would leave personal things around, like pictures, to make people think of this as someone’s personal home and hopefully they’ll respect it.”